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Analysis: Egypt takes back seat as Israel pounds Gaza militants

July 11, 2014 12:14 P.M. (Updated: July 11, 2014 11:18 P.M.)
CAIRO (AFP) -- Having crushed the Muslim Brotherhood, Cairo's new government has taken a back seat as Israel pounds Hamas, the Egyptian movement's Islamist allies across the border in Gaza, analysts said.

Egypt, which has a peace treaty with Israel, brokered a 2012 truce between it and Hamas that favoured the militants, the Palestinian branch of now ousted president Mohamed Morsi's Brotherhood.

With the Brotherhood now quashed, the new government in Cairo has taken a passive approach to the latest conflict, denying Hamas a truce that could see it emerge again as a winner.

Morsi himself is being tried on charges of having colluded with Hamas to plot attacks inside Egypt, which has blacklisted both the Brotherhood and Hamas.

"There doesn't appear to be significant appetite on the Egyptian side in terms of playing a major mediating role at the moment," said Michael Hanna, and Egypt expert with The Century Foundation think-tank in New York.

The government of newly-elected Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the ex-army chief who toppled Morsi last year, has responded to the Gaza conflict by demanding both sides stop the violence.

Public opinion has "soured" against Hamas, Hanna said.

And because of "the security establishment's long standing antipathy to Hamas, they don't mind seeing Hamas being beaten up, essentially," he added.

Israeli air strikes in response to Hamas rocket fire have killed more than 70 Palestinians since Tuesday.

A senior Hamas official has suggested that the movement hopes its rocket attacks on Israeli cities will force it to negotiate terms, allowing the militants to claim a victory.

Hamas demands that Israel respect the terms of the 2012 ceasefire, which relaxed a blockade on Gaza in place since 2006, when Palestinian militants kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.

It also wants the release of detainees freed in 2011 prisoner swap, whom Israel arrested again last month after militants kidnapped and killed three Israeli teenagers.

Israel, the Egyptians have reportedly told Hamas, is unwilling to negotiate any terms, and simply demands an end to the rocket fire.

Bid to corner Hamas

Egypt has shown little interest in trying to soften Israel's position.

"It doesn't want to have a result where Hamas is freed from the substantial pressure it has been under in the past few months," said Issandr El Amrani, the North Africa director for the International Crisis Group think-tank.

For Hamas, escalating the conflict makes sense, despite its weakened regional standing after Morsi's overthrow, said Nathan Thrall, an ICG analyst based in Jerusalem.

"Their experience so far has made them think that it is not unreasonable. Each time these escalations happen there is a discussion about easing or implementing the terms of the 2012 ceasefire," he said

The militants leveraged past conflicts with Israel to also demand Egypt open its Rafah border crossing with Gaza -- the only passage that bypasses Israel -- to commercial traffic.

Egypt on Thursday said it was opening the crossing to Palestinians wounded in Israeli air strikes.

Cairo has regularly closed the crossing since Hamas ousted the Fatah forces of Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas from Gaza in 2007, saying it would permanently reopen it if Abbas's representatives return.

Although Hamas reached a unity deal with Abbas last month to install a government of technocrats, it still controls the enclave and the agreement has faltered on Abbas's refusal to pay Hamas's civil servants.

El Amrani said Hamas would want Egyptian promises to allow more funds to rebuild infrastructure destroyed in previous conflicts.

Egypt, however, "wants to keep Hamas in its corner," he said.
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